Before Jonquel Jones took the court as the star player for Woori Bank of the Korean Basketball League during the WNBA offseason, the Connecticut Sun forward turned to a pregame playlist to elevate her mindset. Certain records have spun their way in and out of Jones' rotation over time, but one tune will never leave her list: "Rise and Shine" by J. Cole.
The artist raps:
Hey dummy, this no accident, all of this was designed
Took my time, crept from behind
And I opened up your blinds, rise and shine
"[It] talks about stepping into the moment and being ready for what life is handing to you," Jones said of the track.
While the song helped Jones to put her best game forward in South Korea, the lyrics were a reminder of an opportunity that awaited 6,800 miles away in Uncasville, Connecticut.
While playing abroad, Jones learned that Chiney Ogwumike, the Sun's second-leading scorer in 2016 (12.6 PPG), sustained an Achilles tendon injury while playing in China in November. Sun coach and general manager Curt Miller sent a message to his players, notifying them that Ogwumike would be lost for the season.
A second note, sent individually to Jones, had a clear message: She was the next woman up.
"[Miller] reached out to me and said that I would have to take a bigger role and be ready to step up," Jones said. "So yeah, I understood what [Chiney's injury] meant."
Miller also bolstered his frontcourt, acquiring Lynetta Kizer from Indiana in a three-team trade that sent Camille Little to Phoenix. The deal also gave the Sun the No. 8 pick in the 2016 draft, which they used to select Maryland's Brionna Jones. Miller then rounded out the frontcourt by signing veteran Danielle Adams.
After an impressive end to her rookie season in 2016, averaging 11.5 points and 5.7 rebounds in the final six games of the season -- including a career-high 21-point game in the season finale -- Jones began to turn heads around the league. With Ogwumike sidelined, GMs selected Jones as the player most likely to have a breakout year in a preseason survey.
Through the first three games of the season, Jones leads the WNBA with 12.7 rebounds per game and also is averaging 14.3 points. She has demonstrated she is more than equipped to live up to the expectations ... while also illustrating that the transformation from mistake-prone rookie to upstart league star doesn't happen overnight.
In Connecticut's home opener against Atlanta, she struggled from the opening tip. Miscommunication about the team's offensive sets appeared to rattle Jones, who missed seemingly open shots in the paint (3-for-11), including one that could have tied the score in a close game. Still, she posted a career-high 20 rebounds.
Fast forward to a week later against Indiana and Jones was the best player on the floor. She recorded her first double-double of the season with 19 points and 12 rebounds, attacking the Fever from the paint while also displaying her versatility by beating slower defenders off the dribble. A strong performance was derailed by a nightmare fourth quarter in which Jones committed three fouls, her final two within 33 seconds of each other, to foul out with the Sun clinging to a three-point lead with 2:45 to play. Indiana won 81-79.
On Tuesday, Jones' defensive struggles continued in a close loss to Minnesota, when veteran Lynx center Sylvia Fowles disrupted Jones the majority of the game. Against an undersized Jones in the paint, Fowles posted game-highs of 21 points, 13 rebounds and 5 blocks. On the offensive end, Jones was effective finishing on the break, but foul trouble hurt her rhythm. She finished with 16 points and six rebounds.
While Jones came into her own at the end of last season, the majority of her rookie year was marred by a combination of mistakes as she struggled to adapt to more experienced and bigger players in the WNBA.
"I think the physicality of the game got to me," she said. "You're playing against big bodies who had been playing the game for a long time and are just so much smarter with [what] they do."
Jones said her confidence took a hit as mistakes -- often due to assignment and personnel errors or slow defensive rotations -- quickly led to a seat on the bench. It was an unfamiliar spot for a player who led the nation in rebounding as a senior at George Washington, a program she has been largely credited with revitalizing.
"You step into a new role when you come into the league, you're playing against the best people in the world, you're coming off the bench," Jones said. "[Your confidence] kind of goes away a little bit because you're trying to focus more on just making sure that you have your role understood."
In Korea, Jones averaged a double-double of 15.8 points and 14.3 rebounds, leading the WiBee to a 36-2 record. In the finale of a three-game championship series, she finished with 27 points and 25 rebounds en route to the team's fifth straight title.
Opponents overseas regularly focused on Jones and looked to be physical with the 6-foot-6 forward, but her ability to find success despite the added attention was encouraging. According to Miller, Jones walked into camp with a "boatload of confidence" and a noticeable "bounce in her step."
"Playing in Korea put me back in the mindset that I could do a lot of the stuff that I wanted to do on the court," Jones said. "Coming into training camp, a lot of my teammates said I could do a lot of the things I want to do as well. It's not just about Korea but how everyone had been in preseason."
Morgan Tuck, Jones' frontcourt running mate, is one of those players. Drafted three spots ahead of Jones as the No. 3 overall pick in 2016, Tuck is back on the court after undergoing a season-ending knee surgery last September. The pair makes up one of the youngest frontcourts in the league, but through three games, Tuck is the second-leading scorer (15.3 PPG), while Jones leads the team in rebounds (12.7 RPG).
"I love playing with JJ," said Tuck prior to the Sun's season opener. "We both know that Chiney was a big player for us last year. So, for us, it's not one of us trying to make up for it, but together and all the posts. I couldn't ask for a better 5-play to play with."
Ogwumike isn't on hand at games this season, but it seems she and Jones share a sisterly relationship -- with Ogwumike assuming the role of the tough-love older sibling.
"Me and her was just talking," Jones said. "She was just like, 'I know I'm always hard on you, but that's because I see the kind of player that you are and the kind of player that you can become -- understand that you can be really special.'"
Since preseason camp opened in May, Miller said he and Jones haven't discussed her stepping up in Ogwumike's absence.
"We all know that Jonquel has to have a big year for us to take the next step as an organization," Miller said. "The only thing that can derail [Jonquel] is herself."